Photo Gallery: La Canada Unified School District candidates face off in a forum

Candidates, from left, Dan Jeffries, Kevork Kurdoghlian, David Sagal, Ian Mirisola, Karyn Riel, Kaitzer Puglia, Jennifer Rubendall, and Joel Peterson at a candidates forum for the La Cañada Unified School District board at La Cañada High School on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013. There are 8 candidates running for three open seats. (Tim Berger / Staff Photographer / October 1, 2013)

Questions about parcel tax rates, merit pay for teachers, and new programs were fielded by candidates for the La Cañada Unified School District board during the first forum of the election season.

PHOTOS: La Cañada school board candidates face off

More than 200 people filled the auditorium at La Cañada High School Tuesday night to hear the eight candidates — incumbent Joel Peterson, Dan Jeffries, Kevork Kurdoghlian, David Sagal, Ian Mirisola, Karyn Riel, Kaitzer Puglia and Jennifer Rubendall — voice their positions on key issues.

With Peterson running to retain his seat, three seats are open in the Nov. 5 election as current board members Scott Tracy and Susan Boyd have chosen not to seek reelection.

Most of the candidates said they were in favor of a parcel tax renewal and some noted that the tax rate is lower than that of other school districts. No one specified programs they would cut if the tax did not cover expenses at the district.

“Cutting of programs of any kind that really gets kids involved and engaged is just not an option,” said Ian Mirisola, a recent graduate of Harvard University and former student of La Cañada High School. “Parcel tax itself needs to be comparable to other districts. The fact is, we pay much less than any comparable school district.”

David Sagal, an executive and attorney for Warner Bros., said he was in support of a high parcel tax rate. Dan Jeffries, a prosecutor with the Los Angeles City Attorney's office, said a high parcel tax is necessary to keep schools running. The parcel tax rate should be “as high as reasonably possible,” said Jeffries.

Peterson said that renewing the parcel tax is the top priority, and if needed, the district can decide on a rate increase at another time.” We cannot afford to lose the existing amount,” he said.

An audience-selected question focused on current legal questions facing the school board regarding a possible conflict on interest with one board member's business.

“Well, we're talking about Joel, right?” Sagal asked, garnering laughs from the audience. The school board sought legal advice in August regarding Peterson's academic consulting business, Student Planning Services.

Sagal said the board needs to evaluate whether the issue is going to affect how the board functions.

Other candidates said the process of evaluating the potential conflict of interest has cost the board time and money, pulling the board from other important matters, like the parcel tax rate.

“I do not appreciate the extra time and money that it is going to drain on our community and on our district,” said Jennifer Rubendall, owner of Urban Fitness and Pilates Studio. “It is distracting.”

When asked about implementing merit pay for teachers, many candidates were unsure how such a program would work or whether such a program is necessary.

“I don't support merit pay,” said Kurdoghlian. “Before we talk about merit pay, we should talk about raising teacher's salaries.”

Puglia, a professor at Pasadena City College, said evaluating which teachers are better than others is subjective. “Merit pay can be, and should be, only one component of the school evaluation and assessment process,” she said.

When talking about programs they would want to implement if elected, many candidates had ideas.

Riel, a Los Angeles school counselor and doctorate student at Pepperdine University, suggested programs that would help students deal with relationships, life skills, and social and emotional growth.

“All of these could have a place in our school system and I would love to see that happen,” she said.

The Valley Sun will run individual interviews with each of the eight school board candidates over the next few weeks.

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Follow Tiffany Kelly on Google+ and on Twitter: @LATiffanyKelly.

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